Books April 2006

Found in Translation?

A new version of War and Peace seeks naturalism through slang— a questionable tack with a book whose originality is not its language
  • War and Peace

    By Leo Tolstoy, translated by Anthony Briggs

There is a new translation of War and Peace. Why? Even Anthony Briggs, its latest translator, tells us that this novel “has been well served by its several [his word: there have been at least nine] translators into English.” Briggs doesn’t mention Huntington Smith, who in 1899 abridged the novel, divided it into two sections (one for stories, one for essays), and renamed it The Physiology of War. But he does a pretty thorough accounting, singling out Louise and Aylmer Maude as “the masters,” and he quotes Tolstoy’s own assessment of their work: “Better translators … could not be invented.”

So, why do we need another translation?

Briggs’s own answer seems evasive and bizarre. He mentions the obvious clearing up of little anachronisms that we’d expect in the first new translation in nearly forty years (the changing of “gay” when it’s used to mean “merry,” for instance), but then goes on to criticize previous translations for a certain prissiness, which he attributes to the fact that most of the translators were women of a “particular social and cultural background.” He proposes to make the dialogue more naturalistic, especially that among “soldiers, peasants, and all the lower orders.” (Giving the benefit of the doubt, I suppose we can presume Briggs to have had some experience with soldiers. But as for peasants and all the lower orders, one wonders whether he intends his gender or his social class to be the ticket.)

In reading this book, however, one is struck by how far one must go (more than 100 pages) before running into any patch of dialogue involving soldiers or the lower orders. Indeed, not only have the novel’s English-language translators been women of a certain class; the book itself is a novel of a certain class. It is unabashedly concerned with the very oldest Russian families. Perhaps that is one of the secrets of its popularity: phenomenally rich, aristocratic people are always easier to take in translation, in a far-off country, and when long dead. The characters in War and Peace lived 200 years ago— Tolstoy was writing about his grandparents’ generation. He himself came from a family older than the czar’s.

It is a novel replete with the machinations of people trying to divert fortunes to their children, but all the money troubles are those of ancient families struggling to keep the life they’ve always lived, with its balls and name-day sit-down dinners for eighty. (The young characters ride in sleighs between dachas over the legendary Russian snow while their parents stay home worrying about money, as if prosperity, with all its glamour, were a show, presented generation after generation, for the benefit of the children.) There’s not one central character in the book who belongs to the lower orders. (Even the German tutor, a longtime favorite of mine, who so ardently wishes to memorize every course in order to write home to his people recording every dish and every wine served at the Rostovs’ great dinner, can hardly be called a peasant.) The novel has its share of widowed noblewomen in need of money, but their speech can’t be expected to differ from that of their luckier friends, whose husbands are still alive.

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Mona Simpson is the author of four novels, including Anywhere But Here and Off Keck Road.

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